On 25 May 1977, the face of popular culture and the forward direction of film, particularly American cinema, changed in an instant. A B-movie science fiction film was released by 20th Century Fox, who were expecting a modest return. Instead the film rapidly became the highest-grossing movie of all time, spawning a franchise now worth over $40 billion dollars in box office and merchandising sales. Hollywood has arguably never recovered from its release, with film-makers and studios constantly searching for “the next Star Wars.”
George Lucas on the set of THX 1138 in 1970.
Understanding the Star Wars phenomenon requires understanding its creator, George Lucas. George Lucas grew up as a speed-freak and gadget fan who then became deeply fascinated by avant-garde cinema and esoteric editing techniques who ended up creating the greatest piece of mass-market entertainment in human history, sometimes to his dismay. Lucas’s attitude to his creation has shifted many times over his career, from pride to loathing to ambivalence to regret, leading eventually – thirty-five years later - to him selling his creation to Disney Studios.
George Lucas was born in Modesto, California on 14 May 1944. The son of a stationery store owner growing up at the time of the Space Race and great strides being made in aircraft and automobile technology, Lucas became fascinated with racing cars. As a teenager he learned how to drive and was soon taking part in underground races, clocking up an impressive number of speeding tickets in the process (enough so that they later disqualified him from serving in the US Air Force). At the age of eighteen he was nearly killed in a collision whilst racing, causing him to lose interest in taking part in the sport. However, he developed an interest in filming races instead, using an 8mm camera.
Lucas became intrigued with film-making and soon developed a fascination with European arthouse cinema. He started studying film at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he met a number of other rising talents including John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Randal Kleiser and Walter Murch. Lucas’s interests tended to the more experimental and esoteric, such as non-narrative forms and motion rather than writing, dialogue or performance. Lucas also became fascinated by how it was possible to completely shift the meaning of narratives and themes through clever use of editing techniques. Lucas came to describe himself as a film-maker rather than a director, preferring to explore the experimental possibilities offered by editing, sound and visuals rather than telling a story by focusing on actors and performance.
Lucas graduated in 1967 as a bachelor of the fine arts in film. He was rebuffed from joining the US Air Force and was later turned down for the draft to fight in Vietnam, due to a diagnosis with diabetes. He re-enrolled at USC as a graduate student in film production, which gave him the opportunity to teach and also work on full-fledged film productions. Whilst assisting on Finian’s Rainbow in 1968 he met and befriended director Francis Ford Coppola. A year later, he and Coppola founded the studio American Zoetrope, with the goal of creating more interesting and experimental cinema outside of the limiting Hollywood system.
This led Lucas to create his first film. He’d already directed a short SF movie called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB and in 1970 expanded this to a full-length dystopian feature film, THX 1138, released the following year. The film attracted mixed reviews and made only a modest profit. In the wake of the film’s release Lucas created his own production company, Lucasfilm, and started looking for a new project.
Coppola had foreseen that THX 1138 only had limited widespread appeal, so challenged Lucas to make a much warmer and human film which larger audiences would relate to. Lucas rose to the challenge, deciding to use his experiences growing up and racing cars to create a nostalgia piece. This was slightly risky, but fortunately Lucas channelled the same wellspring of goodwill for the period (the late 1950s/early 1960s) that the musical Grease had also tapped into and had led to its own successful film adaptation (helmed by Lucas’s friend Randal Kleiser). The script, American Graffiti, was developed by Lucas and co-written with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who were credited with adding a lot of the inter-character banter and humour.
It took Lucas some time to sell the American Graffiti script: during this time he also worked on an early version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, although he eventually passed on the project so Coppola directed it himself. Whilst working on American Graffiti Lucas also began developing his first ideas for a science fiction film, at one point offering United Artists a two-picture deal consisting of American Graffiti and the SF film. They turned him down.
George Lucas filming on location for American Graffiti in 1972.
Universal Pictures signed up for American Graffiti once Coppola signed on as producer, as that allowed them to leverage Coppola’s fame from the success of The Godfather (1972). However, they insisted on a very low budget. With a budget not much higher than that of THX 1138, Lucas had to direct lots of cars and races, along with a relatively large cast.
Lucas cast a mixture of unknowns and established faces in his film. Particularly notable were former child actors Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard, who both had break-out roles in the film. Ron Howard was cast in a similar role in the nostalgic sitcom Happy Days shortly after American Graffiti’s release. Lucas also cast an actor named Harrison Ford, who had classic leading man looks but had not had a breakout role, instead increasingly focusing on a side-career in carpentry.
The production of American Graffiti was chaotic with the young cast not always behaving (several hotel rooms were damaged) and equipment not working, but Lucas, helped by producer Gary Kurtz, remarkably kept the project on time and on budget. Once shooting was over, Lucas cut the film but to his horror discovered it was over three hours long. Solving the problem – knocking it down to 112 minutes – required some fancy footwork in the editing suite and completely rebuilding the narrative structure without the ability to shoot new material.
Universal dithered over releasing the film, at one stage considering making it a TV movie instead, but Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from winning an Oscar for The Godfather, leveraged his influence to ensure the film was released properly. The movie attracted rave reviews and grossed over $55 million, making it a massive hit completely against the expectation of the studio.
With the movie a bona fide hit, Lucas would be able to make whatever he wanted next. And what he wanted to make next was his pulp science fiction movie.